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Conjugation

Gary Kloster is a writer, a stay-at-home father, a martial artist and a reference librarian--sometimes all in the same day, seldom all at the same time. He lives with his wife, children, and aspirational cats in a creaky old house in a midwestern college town.

His previous stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, Fantasy Magazine, The Intergalactic Medicine Show, and in Writers of the Future 25. He also helps clutter the internet at garykloster.com.
***Editor's Note: Adult story, sexual situations***
On our last night, I led Maia through my cities, one after another, until we reached the last, the saddest, the best.
"What is this?"
We were in a park by the river, the water darker than the sky above. I stopped, staring at the reflections of the streetlights, bright stars gleaming in that perfect black. Music from the cabarets that lined the street behind us filled the warm night, tangled with the sound of voices and laughter, and the air was layered with the scent of water and grass, mud and smoke, cigarettes and coffee.
"Berlin," I said. "Weimar Republic."
"Berlin. A place in Europe." Maia paused. "I don't know the other."
Of course not. Only an old-Earth otaku like me would. But it was nice of her to say it, instead of just skimming the information out of her deep memory.
"It was... a moment, caught between two hells." My hand found hers and took it, so warm and real in all this illusion, if not as long lasting. "Beautiful and fleeting."
"Beautiful and fleeting," she echoed, and then she stepped into me, pressed her lips to mine. Light as nostalgia at first, but then we were both pushing closer, pressing together. Our hands moved, fumbling through unfamiliar layers of complicated cloth, pushing and opening and caressing until our separate skins finally pressed together, again, the end, another last, alone in the heart of that bright, doomed city.
We sprawled together, after, in the grass, listening to jazz and breathing each other's scent until we heard the rumble of engines closing in.
"Here comes the boss," Maia whispered, then stretched beside me and sighed. That sigh. "Probably ready to go."
"Are we?"
She tilted her head, met my eyes and smiled, that tiny curve of lips I'd thought about bidding for. "Almost."
Maia stood, ignoring me as I slipped back into my clothes, and watched the cars pull up. One black, one white, polished metal monsters gleaming with chrome, they approached from opposite sides of the street. They drifted past each other and stopped, a driver stepping out from each, each immaculately dressed in uniforms that matched their vehicles.
"Lovely," Maia said. Then she turned to face me. In her hand a stack of cards suddenly gleamed, bright as jewels. "Shall we?"
I stared at what she held, nervous, greedy, then forced my eyes away to meet hers.
"Yes."
Maia smiled again, then began to split cards off her deck like slivers of glass.
"Your study of the seven hundred systems of the Back Spin edge. Your annotated notes on the final symposium of the Kirise College. The stories of Aris Gyre, in the century before zer third death."
"Well," I said, considering her requests. She was starting with the easy stuff. I reached into my pocket and found my deck waiting there, smooth and slippery and cool.
"Your files on the natives of Eraquin." I split the top card off my thin deck. Then the next, "Jeremine's last concert." I paused, considering the last match. "The composition of the tea you served on our ninth day, with full cultural history and preparation ceremony documentation," I decided, finally.
"Done."
We passed our cards, fingers careful not to touch now that we were trading, and I slipped hers into my pocket. They sat there, warm and reassuring, a signal that the information had been exchanged successfully, that it had proven clean of anything malignant.
"Thank you. Now..." In my hidden hand, I stroked my fingers across the cool slickness of my next stack.
"Go ahead," she said, and I twitched. She had stuck me with going first on the personals, but at least she had done it smoothly.
"Fine." I brought out my first card of this set. "Your appreciation of tea." The others followed, a steady rhythm. "The color of your irises in the shade of the pines on our picnic on the seventh day. The snort you made when I told that terrible joke about John Comma. The curve of your lower back." I stopped, one last card of my spread still hidden.
"Yes?"
Maia was giving me that almost smile, and I knew she knew. "Your sigh, after, when the sex was good." I held up my requests, gleaming in the night. "All of that, with the standard acknowledgment of your perpetual rights and a guarantee not to deal them on."
"Hmm," she said, staring at my cards. "Five. Quite a lot."
I didn't answer. That teasing streak of hers, teetering on the edge of cruelty, that I hadn't put in my cards.
Maia finally dealt her match. "Your romantic fascination with old Earth. The smell of you, in the sun but not sweating. The particular way you kiss when you're half awake. That so-thin patience you just manage to hold onto when I tease you."
Four cards, against my five.
"Just those?"
"Those four, with all the standard agreements. More than I usually ask for," she said.
"But not quite enough."
"Well..." She stared up at the faint stars that filled the vast sky. "There could be one thing more."
"What?" I said, wary.
"A promise." She reached for the cards in my hand, deftly slid the one that represented her sigh out and held it up, like a knife ready to be thrown. "That if I give you this, let you fold it into her poppet, that you won't ever remove it."
"You want me to promise to make it permanent?"
She nodded, once.
I looked beyond her and the card, staring at the city that surrounded us, whose beauty was so sharp because it was so short. "I don't believe, much, in permanence."
"I know," she said softly, waiting.
I stared at the card, fragile and shining, and finally nodded. "Agreed."
The stars flowed, a slow river of light, and Maia's black ship rode that current away. I stood in the comfortable hollow of my room and watched them go, staring into the empty dark that had swallowed them until Sidra sent her poppet to me, to hold me close.
"You liked her," she said, stroking her fingers through my hair.
"She was interesting." I said, finally turning my eyes away from the never-ending outside. "For a human."
"Humans can be good people." Sidra's eyes were the color of Maia's in the shade of the pines, but her breath bore the familiar blend of pheromones that we had spent centuries balancing. "I still like mine."
"Good to hear," I breathed, and took her in my arms. These moments of coming back to each other, each subtly changed, were always strange and wonderful. I savored it, the familiar touch of her soft poppet-body against me, the protective curve of her hard ship-body around me, before I spoke again.
"How did your exchange go?"
"I updated his maps," she said. "Found and purged a minor viral meme in one of his tech droids, and helped adjust his pseudo-grav efficiency."
"You gave him a lot. What did you get?"
"Oh, just one thing."
I felt her smile against my cheek. "Just one thing?" I asked.
"One little thing." Sidra's gentle teasing was almost soothing compared to Maia's. "He was very charming, you know."
I stepped back from her, shaking my head. "No ship is charming enough to out-trade you. What did you get?"
"A four percent increase in my drive efficiency."
The empty air above us flickered with color, a sphere of light caging millions of stars.
"This is my limit, now," Sidra said, waving up at the map. "Before I need to refuel."
"We can reach the Wider Bright shoals," I said, staring at the shifting points of light. "In just one jump."
"Yes." Sidra turned my face from the projected stars and kissed me, long and thorough. "I've already set a course. Shall we?"
"Yes," I said, breathless. The map faded to darkness, and my walls became windows again to the deadly beautiful eternity that lay beyond Sidra's hull-skin. Distant stars swung and blurred as she changed her course.
"Jump initiated," Sidra said.
I stared at her flushed face, her wide eyes, and smiled. I knew she loved this, even more than she loved me. Spreading her wings, and flying faster than time.
"Really?"
Sidra snorted, barely distracted, and threw her poppet at me.
"Will you miss her?"
Tangled together, after, we were watching the stars blur past. Time and space a rushing river, bearing us along. Tearing us apart from everyone, to bring us closer to everything.
"Not for long," I said, finally. "Nothing's permanent. Except the stars, and you."
Sidra curled against me, warm in my arms, warm all around me, and sighed.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, October 14th, 2013


For those of you out there who did not experience (read: suffer through--it was at 8 in the morning!) basic microbiology--conjugation is not just a way to mess with verbs. It is also the name for the process by which bacteria transfer genetic material through direct contact. In this way, genes (hopefully useful ones) are exchanged. A kind of bacterial equivalent to sexual reproduction. Except instead of having two parents who produce children that are different from them, you have one or both bacterial "parents" that are changed by their interaction into something new.

- Gary Kloster

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